Beyoncé performs at the VMAs. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
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Beyoncé’s VMA performance was feminism’s most powerful pop culture moment

More and more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it.

I’m old-ish, and it’s been a while since I’ve watched the Video Music Awards. I’m not saying that the last time I tuned in to the full broadcast was to watch Madonna hump the stage in a synthetic wedding dress, but it might have been within a decade of that.

On Monday morning I woke to images of Beyoncé, striking a dramatic pose – dressed as the world’s most beautiful disco ball – in front of the word “FEMINIST” and felt like an excited kid all over again. Or rather, an excited kid in a far more thrilling pop culture universe than the one I was an actual kid in.

The singer, who will be 33 next week, was performing at the end of the annual awards ceremony, just before receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award. She sang a 16-minute medley, and ten minutes in, the words from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” – which Beyoncé sampled in her 2013 song “Flawless” – began to pop up on the screen while Adichie’s voice said them aloud. 

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” said/read Adichie. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man’.” It culminated with Adichie’s definition of feminist – “The person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” – and the shimmering figure of Beyoncé sliding straight out in front of the word, all lit up.

It was a thing of slick, exhilarating beauty. A thing that was, yes, so trivial and packaged that it really should, I realise, be truly meaningless in this summer of real-world, non-staged, non-shimmery police brutality and restricted rights and horrifying incivility. And yet, despite its superfluity, there it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime: that attention to gender inequity is alive, revived, and that it is powered today by a broader, more diverse, more youthful and far glossier energy than it has been in the past four decades. 

And no, that doesn’t mean that Beyoncé Knowles is the single face of feminism, or that she stands in any more sufficiently than any of feminism’s other flawed messengers, past or present. But she’s sending a signal, and the fact that that signal is coming from inside the house, the entertainment industry – hell, the fact that Beyoncé herself is arguably the most powerful person in that house – means something that we should all be paying attention to.

These days, as online feminism swells and roils with internal disagreements, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, there was no online feminism. We forget that not too long ago, a few major women’s organisations were toying with the idea of abandoning the word “feminism”, not because of its complicated history with regard to inclusion and women of colour, but because it turned off too many young women. Not too long ago, the Daily Beast was releasing polling proclaiming feminist “a dirty word”. 

Sunday night, Beyoncé put the word in lights and did not simply use her own voice and body to define it, but turned to another woman’s work as her source. This is a big deal. Having just reread Backlash – the book that brilliantly captured the dismally antifeminist political and pop cultural environment in which I was a young person – I couldn’t help but think that the book’s author, Susan Faludi, must be plotzing. Though she’s always struck me as sort of Eeyoreish, so maybe she, like other critics – both on the left and the right – are underwhelmed by Beyoncé’s feminist credentials: the fact that she presents herself, or allows herself to be presented, in a terrifically feminised, sexualised way; that her career is inherently capitalist in nature; that “Drunk in Love,” performed with her husband Jay-Z, includes the troubling lyric, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” a reference to Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina Turner, one of Beyoncé’s most formidable forerunners.

To this kind of discussion, I say: yes, by all means, argue about sex positivity and objectification and the presentation of female erotic power! Pay attention to the way that those on the right work to dismantle women’s claim to power bit by bit, and to those progressives who validly question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which Beyoncé’s messages emerge, just as we should question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which other contemporary popular feminist voices, from Lena Dunham’s to Sheryl Sandberg’s to Tina Fey’s, have emerged. Bey’s Sunday night performance took place at an event that last year spat up Robin Thicke spanking a twerking Miley Cyrus; even Adichie’s smart and succinct definition of feminism came from a TED Talk: a TED Talk. In feminism and liberalism, the wry lesson of Some Like It Hot pertains: nobody’s perfect. No individual can competently represent all the people who look to her (or him) to see their own experiences or perspectives reflected. And that’s fine, and fine to point out. 

But in the analysis, let’s not wholly lose what remains exciting: the fact that more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it. It’s that unusual positioning that makes them problematic, of course – how can multi-millionaire businesswoman and performers adequately give voice to the inequities faced by women around the world? But it is also symptomatic of something unprecedented, the still-too-few but ever-more-numerous women climbing high within structures that have always been just for boys, and refusing to part with the outside identities that would have barred them from those structures just decades earlier.

On MTV’s news site, the post-VMA headline was “Beyoncé’s 2014 VMA Performance: Fearless, Feminist, Flawless, Family Time”. In my day, those words would never, ever have been strung together. 

So yeah, it’s manufactured stage-craft and she’s rich and they’re corporate, but in a business in which performance is the business, this one was broadcast to twelve million adoring fans. And it showed a woman of colour as a sexually confident, high-octane talent and as a powerful business woman, as an adoring mother and an equal partner (“don’t think I’m just his little wife”) to a man who called her “the greatest living entertainer” as he was handing her her little spaceman statuette and carrying their kid. 

That this is what a woman looks like when she defines herself as a feminist in 2014 tells us that its steadily-published obituaries to the contrary, the women’s movement is not only thriving, but expanding. Bow down. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage